Updated: May 13, 2020
"Loss, fear and grief are like a rubber band ball. They get wound around, overlapping and layering until you cannot pull them apart, even if you try. It is only by pulling off the bands again, separating them one by one, that you can begin to unravel it."
Canadian adventurer Colin Angus chronicles his quest to run the Amazon River from source to sea in his harrowing book Amazon Extreme. In its early pages, and throughout the treacherous tale, the perils encountered during the expedition depict endless edge-of-your-seat scenarios that leave you breathless. You wonder how anyone could survive such obstacles. But for the knowledge the writer in fact lived to tell the tale, it is hardly believed.
Like any story, there is a beginning and an end–and my isolation story is nearing its conclusion. In order to properly put a pin in it, it is necessary to go back to the beginning. I feel it is important to recount the story that spawned this series, so I could explain how I reached the precipice, over which my gushing waterfall of sadness raged. Every waterfall begins as tiny droplets, only to build in ferocity, until it becomes a natural spectacle. It is in these words that I simultaneously put my own life force and fragility on display. Maybe this is why I like waterfalls...
The phone rang. There are many lovely words in the English language, and despite my love of most of them, there are some you never want to hear strung together. Like, “Your dad almost died last night.” To receive news from home and hear the fragile voice of the only other person you love as much tell you such a thing, is heartbreaking on every level. “He is doing just fine,” brought some relief, but there is no erasing that sort of anguish. I have very few words to express about this, other than gratitude for the positive outcome, because I won’t let myself envision the alternative.
Days later, I awoke to Alberta Emergency Alerts saying my brother’s family was under evacuation notice from the Kenow wildfire, which had jumped the border and was raging near my soul sanctuary. If there is anywhere my heart lives, it is in Waterton. If asked to encapsulate my favourite place and be banished forever into a snow globe, that is where I’ll be. It contains my fondest childhood memories of picnics with my family; days spent with my grandparents, when they were still here. It is every boundary I pushed sneaking out in baby doll pyjamas to meet boys at a lakeside camp kitchen, drinking ill-conceived concoctions, and not dying in a frigid stream, being eaten by a wild animal, or killed by my own stupidity.
It was summer camps and summer jobs and it was burning. Knowing my family could be in danger and fearing the Waterton town site could be lost levelled me. Heroics saved the town and my family remained unharmed, but my psyche was flattened. I spent days unable to feel my limbs and self-talking myself into believing I could emerge from the shell I had crawled into. Nobody is dead. The town is saved. Everyone is fine. I told myself these things, over and over. Then I got back up.
Within a month, or two, I heard other words I wish would never have been spoken, if only to make them untrue. At a table over a casual lunch, my phone buzzed; it was my best friend’s name on the screen. Instinct spurred me to answer. “I have cancer,” she said. She was away from home on business and was clearly frightened. I felt helpless. I could not reveal the nature of the call to my lunch companion, so only once the meal ended could I exit to the street, blinded by tears.
Within days, two more calls came. “Your uncle has died,” he said. Four days later, more words I wish did not exist and that still don’t feel deserve to be spoken, “your aunt has died too.” Both succumbed to cancer, six rooms apart in the same hospital, where they had spent their final days. Losing them is a hole I can never possibly fill. If my words could do them any kind of justice, I would write endless volumes.
This was the fall of 2017. This sequence of events will leave me forever altered. Perhaps a heart does not heal, especially when it keeps breaking.
Near-death did not happen to me. Cancer did not happen to me. Death did not happen to me. But they all brought crippling fear and unimaginable feelings of loss, grief and panic, which consumed me. The torrent would not subside. Shortly thereafter, one family member was injured, but was miraculously okay; another family member was diagnosed with cancer, and a friend came out of remission. More cancer.
We started visiting Doris at her home at her son’s request. Her time was nearing. She was frail, but delighted in seeing us, always greeting us by name. She gave us great gifts in her final days. Her gentle spirit bursting out of her withering body. Her smile still generous and her stories on point. At the funeral, praises and hymns were sung, and in hearing the stories of how she had touched so many people in so many different ways, inspiration was sparked. Community could be built and could thrive. I set out to carry her spirit forward.
For a season, the bad news was put on pause, but as the calendar flipped to a new year, there were more fights to wage, and more loss, and so many more tears. By some grace, there was also news of a remission and a recovery. My chronic physical pain raged and required drastic solutions for containment. There was seldom a reprieve.
In May, a gentle soul slipped away. Cory was the kind of guy that lived to make people laugh. With his Tigger-like enthusiasm he would bound into every situation. He left every person he ever met, and every place he ever went as he left the world–- just better.
My friend Jim called me his only child. We had an ease that is hard to find. We often didn’t need to talk, because our expressions conveyed our words. Most of the time the sentiments would result in cascades of laughter. We talked about death and about really living. He had clarity and strength, even as his body failed. He asked me to take care of his dear Rita. Perhaps he was readying us; somehow, he knew despite what seemed inevitable, he would be taken from us in June, quickly and without warning.
Cheryl passed away the following day. I had not seen her for quite some time, but we had forged an unbreakable bond during countless hours cycling and training for Ironman races. Even when I did not have a reason, I would ask if I could accompany her on long training rides, “like your donkey sidekick,” I would say. She made 100k+ bike rides delightful. She regaled me with her stories, always elicited a laugh and lamenting about how her bike shorts made her legs look like sausages.
Two days later, another family member had a medical emergency and we were later blessed with the miracle of his recovery. Throughout this time, yet again, I was unable to feel my limbs. This time there would be no self-talk that could back me out of the abyss. I no longer had the sure footing of solid ground. There was no holding back my tears. Like the mighty Amazon, they raged, cascading over the cliff as the mighty waterfall they’d become, far from the trickle they had once been.
By fall, it was not only the leaves that were changing. So too had my landscape. Familiar faces were gone. Some left by choice, others by circumstance. The world seemed upside down with no way to right it. Everything seemed different. And so began my descent into isolation.
Loss, fear and grief are like a rubber band ball. They get wound around, overlapping and layering until you cannot pull them apart, even if you try. It is only by pulling off the bands again, separating them one by one, that you can begin to unravel it.